Review: ‘Firebird’ (2021), starring Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii and Diana Pozharskaya

May 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in “Firebird” (Photo by Herrki-Erich Merila/Roadside Attractions/The Factory)

“Firebird” (2021)

Directed by Peeter Rebane

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Estonia and Russia, from 1977 to 1983, the dramatic film “Firebird” (which is inspired by a true story) features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men, who begin a secret love affair while they are in the Estonian military together, continue their love affair even after one of the men marries a woman and has a child with her. 

Culture Audience: “Firebird” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about closeted gay people, but the movie is frequently dull and has questionable acting.

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in “Firebird” (Photo by Herrki-Erich Merila/Roadside Attractions/The Factory)

Regardless of the sexualities of the characters in the drama “Firebird,” this monotonous film glorifies a relationship as romantic, when it’s really a doomed love affair where one person in the relationship is very selfish and manipulative. Viewers with common sense can easily see that the love triangle depicted in “Firebird” is not true love. It’s a story about someone taking advantage of two vulnerable people who deserved a better love partner. It doesn’t help that some of the acting in “Firebird” is very stilted and awkward, which makes a lot of the movie very emotionally unconvincing.

Inspired by real events, “Firebird” was directed by Peeter Rebane, who co-wrote the “Firebird” screenplay with “Firebird” star Tom Prior. The movie takes place from 1977 to 1983, in Estonia and Russia, with homophobia and the military ban on homosexuality serving as the reasons why the two men in the love triangle have to keep their affair a secret. “Firebird” isn’t the first movie to cover this topic, but “Firebird” unfortunately and mistakenly tries to make the liar and cheater in the relationship look like some kind of tragic hero.

In the beginning of the “Firebird,” it’s 1977. Sergey Serebrennikov (played by Prior) is a military private in his mid-20s at Haapsalu Air Force Base in Soviet Union-occupied Estonia. Sergey does well in the military, but his real passion is in creative arts. He’s an enthusiastic photographer, and what he really wants to do with his life is become an actor. Sergey’s closest friends at the Air Force Base are Siderov Volodja (played by Jake Henderson) and Luisa (played by Diana Pozharskaya), who are about the same age as Sergey.

Siderov is a slightly rebellious type who has a knack for getting away with some mischief. The movie’s opening scene shows Sergey, Siderov and Luisa taking a swim in a lake at night when they’re supposed to be in their sleeping quarters on the Air Force Base. Two security officers who are patrolling the area hear the commotion in the lake, and one of the officers shines a flashlight and threatens to shoot. While Sergey and Luisa hide, Siderov comes out from the shadows and identifies himself.

One of the security officers says to Siderov, “You again?” Ultimately, the security officers do nothing and walk away after telling Siderov to go back to the base, although one of the officers mutters to his co-worker, “Next time, I’ll shoot him.” Siderov’s confidence in being able to break the rules is in marked contrast to Sergey, who is terrified of getting himself and other people into trouble. It’s one of the reasons why Sergey stays too long in an on-again/off-again relationship with the deeply closeted man who ends up taking more than he gives in their relationship.

Sergey never explicitly states what his own sexuality is in the entire story. In the beginning of the movie, he has a massive crush on Luisa. Sergey gets secretly upset when Luisa dates other men. Luisa has firmly put Sergey in the “friend zone,” although sometimes she flirts with Sergey too. Siderov tries to give Sergey confidence-boosting talks on how he can win over Luisa, but Sergey seems to know that Luisa will see Sergey as nothing more than a close friend.

One day, a good-looking fighter pilot named Roman Matvejev (played by Oleg Zagorodnii), who’s in his late 20s or early 30s, arrives at the Air Force Base. The first time that Sergey sees him, Sergey is outside with his constant companions Luisa and Siderov while trying to take a “selfie” group photo of the three of them. Roman walks up to the trio and offers to take a picture of the three pals instead. Roman looks at Sergey in a way that suggests that he might want to do more to Sergey than take a picture of him.

Roman has been recruited to the Air Force Base because it will be his duty to prevent a B-52 bomber with a thermonuclear device from slipping through an air corridor to Leningrad. Roman’s immediate supervisor is Major Zverev (played by Margus Prangel), who is every worst stereotype of a homophobe. Major Zverev reports to Colonel Kuznetsov (played by Nicholas Woodeson), a tough but fair-minded supervisor, who believes in Roman’s talent and seems to want to be Roman’s mentor.

Because of Sergey’s interest in photography, he encounters Roman on some occasions when Sergey is developing photos in the photo darkroom on the Air Force Base. During their conversations, an unspoken attraction grows between Roman and Sergey. Roman, who is older and more experienced, makes the first move when he and Sergey kiss each other for the first time. It isn’t long before Roman and Sergey are sneaking off together for sexual trysts, including a hookup in the same lake where Sergey and Luisa were almost caught with Siderov.

At some point, Sergey decides that he would be happier being an actor than a military person, so his request to be discharged is granted. Sergey, who grew up on a farm, plans to go to Moscow to pursue his dream of being an actor. Roman and Sergey both share an interest in live theater, and they even go see a theater show together on a date. During a secret rendezvous, Sergey half-jokingly tells Roman that they should run away to Moscow together. Considering that Roman wants to stay employed by the military for as long as possible, the idea of Roman and Sergey living in bliss together for the rest of their lives is a pipe dream at best.

Someone at the Air Force Base must have seen Roman and Sergey together, because Major Zverev gets an anonymous complaint that Roman is having a same-sex affair, which is grounds for a dishonorable discharge and a prison sentence. Roman is ambitious and want to rise through the military ranks, so his response to the accusation is entirely expected: He denies everything.

Major Zverev doesn’t really believe Roman, but Colonel Kuznetsov is willing to give Roman the benefit of the doubt, especially since the complaint was anonymous, and the complaint did not have any proof. “Firebird” has a few tension-filled scenes where a suspicious Major Zverev tries to find proof that Roman is having a sexual relationship with a man. Meanwhile, Roman becomes paranoid and tells Sergey to stop talking to him in public. Sergey, who is about to leave the military in the near future, is crushed by this rejection.

It sets the tone for their relationship though. Every time Roman thinks that he will be “outed,” he distances himself from Sergey, who gets emotionally hurt, but then is willing to take Roman back when Roman is ready to resume their affair. Sergey is in love with Roman and wants to do whatever it takes to please him. And here’s the thing that makes Roman an even more despicable lout: Roman decides he’s going to marry Luisa, knowing that Sergey was kind of in love Luisa too, although Sergey’s romantic feelings for Luisa are not as strong as how Sergey feels about Roman.

Luisa, who has fallen deeply in love with Roman, has no idea that Sergey and Roman have been secretly hooking up with each other. Roman is not in love with Luisa. He’s only marrying her so that he can stop any speculation that he might be gay, and because he knows that having an image of being a heterosexual married man can benefit his career. Meanwhile, an emotionally tortured Sergey has to pretend to be happy for Luisa and Roman getting married, so that Luisa won’t get suspicious. Sergey even attends the wedding. Roman and Luisa eventually have a son together.

“Firebird” is an often-dreary slog of this very dysfunctional love triangle that has Roman calling all of the shots. Even after Sergey relocates to Moscow and tries to move on with his life without Roman, the chronically deceitful Roman finds a way back into Sergey’s life. In real life, a lot of people fall in love with people who are no good for them. It doesn’t mean that a movie has to make this type of toxic relationship look like true love. It isn’t true love. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen.

Making matters worse for “Firebird,” the movie is very disjointed in how it tells this story. In the first third of the movie, there’s too much time spent on Sergey and his fellow conscripts going through boot camp-styled harassment, led by a homophobic and sadistic bully named Sergeant Janis (played by Markus Luik), who is physically and verbally abusive. Sergeant Janis particularly likes to target underlings whom he likes to accuse of being gay, if they can’t do what he tells them to do.

Most of the supporting cast members are adequate in their roles. The credibility problem is with the two “Firebird” lead actors. In the role of Sergey, Prior (who is British in real life) is never completely believable as someone from Eastern Europe, since his Eastern European accent is shaky at best. Meanwhile, as Roman, Zagorodnii gives the worst performance in the “Firebird” cast. Zagorodnii’s wooden acting drags down the film, and it makes viewers speculate that he must have been cast in this role mainly for his good looks.

And really, after a while, it’s hard to see what Sergey sees in Roman besides those good looks. Sergey is a loving and unselfish partner, but Roman is not treating Sergey as the great love of his life who deserves to be respected. Roman is treating Sergey like a “side piece” that Roman wants when it’s convenient for Roman. Viewers with enough life experience can see this mismatched relationship for what it is. These viewers won’t buy the “Sergey and Roman are soul mates” fantasy that “Firebird” is desperately trying to sell.

Roadside Attractions released “Firebird” in select U.S. cinemas on April 29, 2022. The movie is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on June 3, 2022. “Firebird” was released in Estonia in 2021.

Review: ‘Navalny,’ starring Alexei Navalny

April 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexei Navalny in “Navalny” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Navalny”

Directed by Daniel Roher

Some language in Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2018 to 2021, in Russia, Germany and Austria, the documentary film “Navalny” features an all-white group of political workers, journalists, investigators and family members who are connected in some way to Russian activist/politician Alexei Navalny.

Culture Clash: Navalny, who has been an outspoken critic/opponent of Russian president Valdimir Putin, launches an investigation to find out who poisoned Navalny in 2020, and he returns from exile to Russia, knowing that he is certain to be imprisoned. 

Culture Audience: “Navalny” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about international politics, corruption and charismatic public figures.

Alexei Navalny and Maria Pevchikh in “Navalny” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Although the story of Russian political activist Alexei Navalny has been widely reported in the news, the documentary “Navalny” is a wild and intriguing look at what went on behind the scenes when he tried to find out who poisoned him in 2020. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Daniel Rohrer, “Navalny” (which was filmed from 2018 to 2021) gives an up-close-and-personal view of Navalny and people in his inner circle, through interviews and other candid footage. It’s not only an enthralling story of an aspiring Russian politician but it’s also a gripping exposé of a Russian government’s response to outspoken critics. “Navalny” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award and the Festival Favorite Award.

Navalny (who founded the Russian-based group Anti-Corruption Foundation) has no shortage of passion for the causes that he believes in, but he also has no shortage of ego. There are moments when he acts like he’s a rock star of Russian politics. While the Vladimir Putin-led Russian government portrays Navalny as a traitorous villain, and others see Navalny as a heroic martyr, what emerges in this documentary is a portrait of someone is who neither as dastardly nor as noble as some of the labels that have been thrust upon him. He comes across as shrewd, charismatic and hungry for power so that he can carry out what he says is his agenda: bringing true democracy and more equality to the people of Russia, especially the underprivileged.

These platitudes are often given by people who want to be in political leadership roles. But Navalny—an attorney who has never held an elected political office in the Russian federal government—claims that he really is interested in politics for all the right reasons. At the time this documentary was filmed, he was the leader of the Russia of the Future party. Navalny’s past attempts to run for various political offices have been interrupted by his numerous arrests. The documentary briefly mentions the controversy of his past association with anti-immigrant, white Russian national groups, whom Navalny now denounces. He says his past alignment with these bigoted groups was to open a dialogue with them.

As a political opponent to Russian president Putin, Navalny became very popular, as evidenced by his ability to draw huge crowds and by gaining millions of followers on social media. But a plane flight from Tomsk to Moscow on August 20, 2020, changed all of that momentum, when Navalny was poisoned with Novichok and nearly died while on that plane, which made an emergency landing in Omsk so he could get medical treatment. An investigation determined that Navalny had been poisoned in Novosibirsk, Russia, before he boarded the plane.

In the documentary, Navalny says that before this attempted murder happened to him, he thought that the more famous he became, the safer he would be from any dangerous attack because it would be made more public. “I was wrong,” he deadpans in the movie. In the beginning of the documentary, director Roher can be heard asking Navalny, “If you were killed, what message would you like to leave behind for the Russian people?” Navalny replies, “Oh, come on, Daniel. No way. It’s like a movie for the case of my death. Let it be movie No. 2. Let’s make a thriller out of this movie.”

Indeed, this documentary has many twists and turns into Navalny’s personal investigation into who poisoned him. This attempted murder was a crime that he always suspected was ordered by Putin. What was revealed in this investigation has already been reported, but seeing it unfold in this documentary is nothing short of fascinating.

Along the way, various people are featured in the documentary who are close to Navalny, including Navalny’s loyal wife Yulia Navalny and daughter Dasha Navalny, who was in her late teens at the time this documentary was filmed. Dasha comments on the poisoning of her father: “It was surreal. It was like [something in] a book.”

Later in the documentary, Dasha says of the burden that her father’s notoriety has placed on the family: “Since I was 13 years old, I’ve thought about what I would do if my dad was killed.” The movie also shows Yulia’s successful efforts to get her husband out of the hospital where he was taken after being poisoned, because the hospital had “more police and government agents than doctors.” He was safely transferred to a hospital in Germany.

“Navalny” gives an insightful look at the employees in Alexei Navalny’s trusted inner circle. Press secretary Kira Yarmysh is often the voice of reason among some of the chaos. Chief of staff Leonid Volkov is the steadfast right-hand man who carries out the leader’s commands but also has to make split-second decisions on his own. Maria Pevchikh, the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s chief investigator, is fiercely protective of her boss and sometimes combative. During the investigation, Pevchikh has to compromise and reluctantly agrees not share certain information with Alexei Navalny, so as not to taint his bias as a victim.

Also crucial to the investigation is a group based in Vienna, Austria, called Bellingcat, led by chief investigator Christo Grozev, who calls Bellingcat a bunch of “data nerds.” It was through Bellingcat’s sleuthing using technology (and some good old-fashioned phone calls) that essential clues were uncovered. The documentary also includes a few journalists (such as CNN’s Tim Lister and Der Spiegel’s Fidelius Schmid) who also investigated the poisoning.

“Navalny” is essential viewing for anyone interested in international politics. Viewers who see this movie can expect to go through a rollercoaster of emotions. And although the investigation does yield answers, “Navalny” is the type of documentary that concludes with a very “to be continued” tone, because events in Alexei Navalny’s life and in Russian politics are still making history.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Fathom Events will release “Navalny” in U.S. cinemas for a limited engagement on April 11 and April 12, 2022. CNN and CNN+ will premiere “Navalny” on April 24, 2022. HBO Max will premiere the movie on May 26, 2022.

Review: ‘Compartment No. 6,’ starring Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov

February 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in “Compartment No. 6” (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Compartment No. 6”

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen

Russian and Finnish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia in the 1980s, the dramatic film “Compartment No. 6” features a cast of an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Finnish woman and a Russian man meet on a train when they’re forced to share the same compartment, and they have conflicts when he attempts to get close to her in sometimes crude and off-putting ways. 

Culture Audience: “Compartment No. 6” will appeal primarily to people interested in European films about seemingly mismatched people who have to travel together under awkward circumstances.

Seidi Haarla and Yuriy Borisov in “Compartment No. 6” (Photo by Sami Kuokkanen/Aamu Film Company/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Compartment No. 6” avoids a lot of movie stereotypes about two strangers who meet on a train. It’s not a thriller or a comedy, but it’s a realistic, wandering drama about human connections that develop in spite of friction. This isn’t the type of movie that will appeal to people who are expecting wacky or extreme things to happen. However, for viewers who appreciate thoughtful observations of individual personalities and how strangers get to know each other, “Compartment No. 6” offers an engaging ride.

Directed by Juho Kuosmanen, “Compartment No. 6” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the Grand Prix and a special mention for the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Kuosmanen and Andris Feldmanis wrote the movie’s screenplay, which is adapted from Rosa Liksom’s 2011 novel of the same name. “Compartment No. 6” is the type of artsy European film that tends to be well-received at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s not a movie that’s too pretentious, because it’s about two “ordinary people,” but viewers should not expect the type of overly contrived scenarios that often plague stories about two strangers stuck on a long trip together. There’s good acting all-around, but how much people will enjoy this movie will depend mainly on if they’re interested in watching the dynamics of two people who spend a lot of awkward moments together during much of the movie. The ending of “Compartment No. 6” is a “full circle” moment that viewers will appreciate for how it shows that first impressions can be lasting impressions that yield unexpected results.

“Compartment No. 6,” which takes place in Russia, is told from the perspective of a Finnish woman in her late 20s or early 30s named Laura (played by Seidi Haarla), who has been temporarily living with her Russian lover Irina Mezhinskaya (played by Dinara Drukarova), who is in the closet about her sexuality. The movie opens with a house party at Irina’s place, where host Irina is the jovial center of attention. Laura is introduced to people at the party as Irina’s “friend,” and they dance together like friends. But when Irina and Laura have a moment alone together in the bedroom during the party, they kiss each other passionately.

The movie gives no details of how long Laura and Irina have been together, but it doesn’t appear to be very long. Laura is not a Russian citizen, and she doesn’t appear to have a job. Irina, who’s about five to seven years older than Irina, has an unnamed job that has given her an income to afford a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. This living situation appears to be making Laura a little uncomfortable because she doesn’t want to be considered a “freeloader.” Laura also seems to be more willing than Irina to go public with their relationship.

“Compartment No. 6” does not specify the decade in which this story takes place. And the movie’s costume design and hairstyling aren’t overt indications either. But there are enough clues to show that the movie takes place in the 1980s. Laura listens to music on a Sony Walkman-type of cassette player. No one has cell phones. No one talks about the Internet. And on her trip, Laura makes video messages for Irina on a cassette-using video camera.

The day after this house party, Laura (who says she wants to be an archeology student) and Irina had planned to take a trip by train to the Murmansk, Russia, to look at the famous petroglyphs there. Laura has very much been looking forward this trip, which she wanted to be a romantic getaway. However, Irna backed out of the trip on short notice because of unexpected work obligations. Laura seems to be more upset about this change of plans than Irina is.

Because archeology enthusiast Laura still wants to see the petroglyphs, she decides to take the trip by herself, with the encouragement of Irina. And so, that’s how Laura ends up on a train in the second-class section’s Compartment No. 6, where she meets the passenger who’s sharing the compartment with her. He’s a crude Russian miner named Ljoha (played by Yuriy Borisov), who is close to the same age as Laura is. Ljoha is drunk and verbally aggressive to Laura during the first time that they meet.

Underneath his coarse attitude, Ljoha obviously is attracted to Laura. She can sense it too, but she makes it clear to him that she’s not interested in him for romance or friendship. She tries to avoid talking to him, but he keeps pestering her with questions. Some of his interrogation includes asking her, “What are you doing on this train alone? Selling your cunt?”

When he finds out that she’s Finnish, Ljoha demands that Laura teach him a few words in Finnish, such as “hello,” “goodbye” and “blizzard.” When Ljoha asks Laura to tell him how to say, “I love you” in Finnish and write it down for him, she writes down these words in Finnish instead: “Fuck you.” Ljoha has no idea, of course.

Ljoha eventually gets physically aggressive with Laura. It makes her so uncomfortable, Laura tries to see if she can switch compartments, but the rest of the compartments are full. Because she has a second-class ticket, she can’t go in the first-class section. Laura even tries to bribe the train ticket taker named Natalia (played by Yuliya Aug) to let her go to another compartment by explaining the problem, but Natalia is unmoved.

There’s no getting around it: Laura is stuck on the train with Ljoha for about three days. Over time, she finds out that Ljoha is going to Murmansk for a job at Olenegorsk GOK, a mining and processing combine. Along the way, some hijinks ensue, but they’re not as exciting as they would be if the movie had been a Hollywood version of the story.

One thing that becomes obvious is that Ljoha is so attracted to Laura, he gets a little jealous when other strangers on the train catch her attention and she starts having friendly conversations with them. Laura tries to keep an emotional distance from Ljoha, but Ljoha has an impish charm that she eventually gets involved with in a way that starts out as cautious, but then she lets more of her guard down when she’s with Ljoha. The movie shows if Laura eventually tells Ljoha that she’s romantically involved with another woman.

Because of the meandering tone of “Compartment No. 6,” there will be times when viewers will wonder where the story is going and what’s the point of having certain scenes in the movie. There are some scenes that go nowhere, but they are just meant to be “slice of life” scenes. Since it’s already established that Laura isn’t romantically interested in Ljoha, this isn’t a “will they or won’t they get together” cliché that would usually be in a romantic movie.

In addition to the authentic-sounding dialogue, one of the reasons why “Compartment No. 6” is a better-than-average film is that all of the actors are entirely believable in their roles. Laura’s well-justified initial repulsion of Ljoha then gives way to curiosity and then an understanding that she’s a lot more like Ljoha than she would care to admit to anyone. Ljoha (who drifts from job to job) and Laura are both lost souls who don’t really have a permanent home at this point in time. You won’t learn much about Ljoha’s and Laura’s backgrounds before they met each other, because that’s the point: They both have rootless existences.

When Ljoha isn’t drunk, he even shows a little bit of a tender and compassionate side of himself to Laura. He isn’t quite the jerk that she initially thought he was, and she isn’t quite the uptight snob that he initially thought she was. The connection between Laura and Ljoha is an example of how when there’s an opportunity to get to know someone outside of one’s comfort zone (even if it’s unavoidable because you’re sharing a train compartment), it’s an opportunity that can result in some insightful surprises about the other person and about yourself.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Compartment No. 6” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2022. The movie was released in Russia and other parts of Europe in 2021.

Review: ‘Sputnik,’ starring Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Fedor Bondarchuk and Anton Vasilev

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pyotr Fyodorov and Oksana Akinshinain in “Sputnik” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Sputnik” 

Directed by Egor Abramenko

Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia (and briefly in outer space) in 1983, the sci-fi/horror film “Sputnik” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A psychologist at a crossroads in her career is recruited to examine a cosmonaut who has lost his memory after a botched space mission, which resulted in a parasite creature living inside his body.

Culture Audience:  “Sputnik” will appeal primarily to people who like sci-fi/horror films influenced by “Alien.”

Pyotr Fyodorov in “Sputnik” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

There’s no way to get around the comparison, so it might as well be brought up right away: “Sputnik” is undoubtedly inspired by director Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic “Alien,” because it’s essentially about people trapped in an enclosed space with a deadly parasitic creature that feeds off of humans. “Sputnik” (directed by Egor Abramenko) is nowhere near as groundbreaking as “Alien,” but it’s an intriguing, well-paced thriller that is an impressive feature-film debut from Abramenko.

“Sputnik,” just like in “Alien,” begins with a space mission that goes very wrong. It’s 1983, and the Russian small spacecraft Orbita-4 has experienced a major jolt that causes the control panel to go haywire and the spacecraft begins malfunctioning, as if it’s going to crash. The people on board then hear what sounds like something walking on top of the spacecraft.

It’s unknown what happened after that, because the next thing that viewers see is that Orbita-4 has crashed back down to Earth. The commander is dead, the flight engineer is in a coma, and the only survivor is Konstantin Veshnyakov (played by Pyotr Fyodorovas), who has no memory of what happened to him while he was in outer space. The media and the government of the Soviet Union (as Russia was known back then) have hailed Konstantin as a hero. In the meantime, he is being held in quarantine so scientists can investigate.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, at the Research Institute of Brain AMS USSR, a strong-willed psychologist named Tatyana Klimova (played Oksana Akinshinain) is being interrogated by a Health Ministry panel because she’s been accused of misconduct and negligence. Tatyana is under investigation for the death of a 17-year-old boy, by holding him underwater for nearly a minute. This incident is not seen in the movie, but Tatyana is told by the lead interrogator that she will not accused of willfully inflicting injuries on a patient.

Tatyana admits that she temporarily cut off oxygen to the patient because he was misdiagnosed. She also refuses to admit to any wrongdoing and says she actually did the right thing when treating the patient. Even though the outcome of the investigation is pending, Tatyana is sure that her days are numbered at her job: She knows she’s going to be fired or forced to resign. But, for now, Tatyana refuses to quit and is adamant about defending herself from what she says is a wrongful accusation.

After this interrogation, as Tatyana is about to leave her workplace for the day, a man identifying himself as Colonel Semiradov (played by Fedor Bondarchuk) approaches her and tells her that he runs a research institute, he’s interested in neuropsychology, and he wants her expert opinion. Semiradov is in charge of the All-Union Scientific Research Institute in Kazakhstan, where he wants Tatyana to go to examine a patient.

Tatyana is reluctant at first because she doesn’t want to spend time away from Moscow. However, Semiradov makes her an offer she doesn’t refuse: If she does what he asks of her, he promises that he “take care of the review board,” implying that those career-damaging accusations against her will go away. Tatyana doesn’t really question Semiradov’s credentials or do a background check on him. Nor does she ask him to go into details about who or what she’s being asked to examine.

Tatyana trusts that Semiradov telling the truth and she agrees to go to Kazakhstan for this mysterious job. It’s implied in the movie that Tatyana is putting blind faith in Semiradov, largely because of her circumstances: She’s about to lose her job and she’s probably curious about this new research opportunity that could lead to her next job. It explains why she doesn’t ask very many questions and willingly goes to Kazakhstan without really knowing why she’s there.

When she gets to All-Union Scientific Research Institute in Kazakhstan, Tatyana finds out that she’s supposed to examine the quarantined Konstantin, who is being held there in secrecy. Although Tatyana has been told that she will have access to 90% of the facilities, she feels a growing sense of unease that she is being “trapped” there because of the secrets that she uncovers.

During her time at All-Union Scientific Research Institute, Tatyana meets Yan Leonidovich Rigel (played by Anton Vasilev) , the director of the institute, who tells her that Konstatin can be hypnotized. Yan and Tatyana end up clashing over ways to treat Konstantin, so there’s somewhat of a power struggle between them that can get in the way of what Tatyana was recruited to do. And it isn’t long before Semiradov tells Tatyana that she was chosen specifically because of her maverick ways. He wants someone who can think “outside the box,” even if it sometimes going against the government’s rules.

During Tatyana’s analysis of Konstantin, he seems to be playing games with her. He says that he is a field marshall named Robert Duvall. But all kidding aside, Konstantin is aware that he might be sequestered for the long haul, because he asks Tatyana to call his mother Lydia and tell her that he’s fine. Another member of Konstantin’s family is part of one of the more touching subplots of the movie. Tatyana diagnoses Konstantin with post-traumatic stress disorder, but there’s obviously something else going on with him.

And because it’s already revealed in the “Sputnik” trailer, it’s not a spoiler to say that Tatyana isn’t just there to try to help Konstantin recover his memories. Konstantin has a large parasite creature living inside him that is controlling Konstantin’s brain and has a symbiotic relationship with Konstantin’s other organs. The creature apparently invaded Konstantin’s body while he was in outer space.

And the creature only comes out of Konstantin’s body between 2:40 a.m. and 3:10 a.m., when it has an appetite that is deadly to humans. Tatyana and the other people who know this secret are supposed to figure out a way to keep the parasite separate from Konstantin without getting anyone killed. Easier said than done.

Much of “Sputnik” borrows elements from “Alien,” including the idea of a slimy and grotesque creature living inside a human and even the way that the movie is shot that evokes a cold, dark interior that feels more claustrophobic as terror starts to take hold. And just like in “Alien,” the female protagonist is the smartest and bravest person in the story. She has grit but she also has compassion.

And although it’s not overtly mentioned in “Sputnik,” the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States affects the motivations of this top-secret research institute. Knowing that one of their “hero” cosmonauts has brought a deadly creature back to Earth is a shameful scandal that they don’t want exposed to people on the outside. It’s one of the reasons why “Sputnik” isn’t a typical “alien creature on the loose” story, although certain parts of the movie are like a typical horror flick where it’s all about guessing who will die and who will survive.

The “Sputnik” screenplay, written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev, fortunately doesn’t clutter the story with too many characters. Abramenko’s assured and stylish direction make “Sputnik” an engaging thriller that has some twists that are surprising but not shocking. A movie like this could easily get too caught up in the visual scares, but the ending of the movie is a poignant reminder that space explorations that are ostensibly for the greater good of humankind can come with a human cost that represent life’s fragility.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Sputnik” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD.

Review: ‘Beanpole,’ starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina

January 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Beanpole”

Directed by Kantemir Balagov 

Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place shortly after World War II in Leningrad, Russia, the female-centric “Beanpole” has an all-white cast of characters representing people from various social classes, ranging from working-class to middle-class to upper-class.

Culture Clash: Two female war veterans who are best friends have difficulties adjusting to life after the war, as they encounter obstacles due to their socioeconomic status, and the two friends have conflicts with each other over motherhood issues.

Culture Audience: “Beanpole” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema from Europe.

Vasilisa Perelygina and Viktoria Miroshnichenko in “Beanpole” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

The opening scene of the dramatic film “Beanpole” doesn’t leave any doubt that the movie’s title character has something very wrong with her. In the beginning of the film, Russian nurse Iya Tsvylyova (who’s nicknamed “Beanpole” because she’s very tall and thin) is seen in a hospital laundry room in a trance-like state, and she’s making noises that sound like she wants to speak but she can’t. Is she mute? Is she in shock over something? Is she mentally challenged?

It turns out that she’s none of the above, but the movie keeps you guessing over when she’ll go in and out of these trances. Iya (played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko) can talk just fine when she’s not in a trance, so there’s nothing wrong with her vocal cords. Based on her co-workers’ reactions, they’re aware of Iya having these unexplained episodes of detachment, and the only thing they can do when she’s in a trance is wait for her to snap out of it.

The story takes place just after World War II, and Iya works as a nurse in a Leningrad hospital for wounded veterans. Her life revolves around her job and caring for Pashka (played by Timofey Glazkov), a boy who is about 4 or 5 years old. At first, the movie leads you to believe that Pashka is Iya’s son, since the child is living with her and she treats him exactly like how a loving mother would treat a child. But something terrible happens to Pashka, resulting in his death, and we find out that Iya is not the boy’s biological mother.

Pashka’s real mother is Masha (played by Vasilisa Perelygina), a military veteran and Iya’s best friend, who has returned from the war, not knowing that her son has died. Masha has not seen her son since he was a baby or a toddler, so when Masha visits Iya at home to retrieve Pashka, Masha is eager to find out how much her son has changed. The look of fear and dread on Iya’s face tells Masha that something awful has happened, and she correctly guesses that Pashka is dead. When Masha asks how Paskha died, Iya lies to Masha by saying that Paskha died in his sleep, because Iya knows that telling Masha the truth would be too devastating. Masha doesn’t go into hysterics and seems to internalize her grief.

Meanwhile, it’s eventually revealed that Iya is also a military veteran. She and Misha served in the war as anti-aircraft gunners, but Iya was discharged from the military, due to getting a concussion that presumably has caused her to go into these trances. It’s also likely that Iya has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), since it’s implied that she developed this condition during the war.

Despite the tragedy of losing her son Pashka while the child was in Iya’s care, Masha decides to remain a close friend to Iya, and she moves in with her, since Masha has no family and has no other place to go. (It’s mentioned that Pashka’s father died in the war.)

The two women are opposites. Iya is shy, awkward and seems to be sexually inexperienced. Masha is outgoing, feisty and very open about the fact that she’s had several lovers. And their attitudes greatly differ when it comes to having children, which affects what happens later on in the story.

“Beanpole” shows that one of the harsh realities of post-World War II life in Russia was that the country was plagued with food shortages, and women often prostituted themselves by having sex with men in exchange for food. That’s what happens when Masha and Iya are walking down a street one night, and they’re spotted by two young men driving by in a car, and the men offer them the food that they have in the car.

Masha knows what the men are after, but Iya seems to be completely unaware of what’s expected of her and Masha after they eat the food that the men have offered to them. One of the men takes Iya outside, while Masha stays in the car and has quickie sex with the other man in the back seat of the car. Masha and the guy have barely finished when he’s dragged out of the car by Iya, who punches him in the face.

It turns out that Iya has also assaulted the other guy, who has witnessed Iya’s rage toward his friend. It isn’t revealed how much sexual activity took place between Iya and the other guy, but he says with a strange smirk that his arm might be broken and that the two women were livelier than he thought they would be. While Iya and Masha run away, Iya scolds Masha for not telling her what the men’s intentions were, but Masha laughs because she thinks the entire incident is hilarious. It’s a sign that there’s something mentally “off” about Masha too.

Soon after that incident, Masha interviews for a job at the hospital. She flirts with the middle-aged supervisor Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (played by Andrey Bykov), who’s interviewing her, and she’s intrigued by him because she knows that the doctor is sexually attracted to Iya. When Masha sees a photo of two young children on his desk, she asks him if those are his children. He tells her yes, but the children have died. When he asks her if she has any children, she tells him she doesn’t, and lies by saying that she hasn’t become a mother yet. Masha ends up getting a job as an attendant at the hospital.

Not long after she starts working at the hospital, Masha gets a nosebleed and mysteriously collapses. She’s diagnosed with exhaustion and finds out, to her horror, that her reproductive organs were removed without her knowledge during an operation that she had in the war. But in yet another sign of Masha’s mental instability, she reacts to the news in a bizarre way: She says she could be pregnant at that moment and it would be a miracle.

Eventually, reality sinks in, and Masha is devastated over knowing that she can never conceive a child again. She tells Iya that not being a mother makes her feel empty, so she asks Iya to get pregnant and give the child to Masha to raise as her own. Iya is shocked by the proposal and is terrified at the thought of having sex with a sperm donor, but Masha puts a guilt trip on Iya about Pashka’s death, by saying to Iya, “You owe me.”

Later at the hospital, Masha runs into someone unexpected: the guy she had sex with in the car. By a strange twist of fate, he works at the hospital as an orderly. His name is Alexander, nicknamed Sasha (played by Igor Shirokov), and he’s clearly infatuated with Masha. Sasha pursues her romantically and starts spending more time at Iya and Masha’s place, much to Iya’s dismay. Later on in the movie, Masha finds out why Iya is so jealous of Sasha. Iya isn’t the only one with a secret. Sasha has also been secretive about a part of his life, and when he shows that side of his life to Masha, it permanently changes his relationship with her.

Does Iya agree to get pregnant? And if so, who will impregnate her? Does she give birth and then give the baby to Masha? Those are questions that are answered in the movie, but that information won’t be revealed in this review. It’s enough to say that the emotional heart of the story is in Iya’s decision and what happens afterward. (The ending might not be what you think it is.)

“Beanpole” is the type of movie that will sneak up on you with a few surprises, while telling a story that is specific yet universal. While most people will never know what it’s like to be a Russian female World War II veteran, almost everyone can relate to having the type of friendship where uncommon favors and sacrifices are made because of the friendship. People who have parenthood issues, especially when it comes to infertility or losing a child to death, can also be emotionally impacted by this story.

“Beanpole” director Kantemir Balagov, who wrote the movie’s screenplay with Aleksandr Terekhov, unfolds the story by revealing details in a scattered way that eventually comes together to make sense, much like putting pieces of a puzzle together. For example, some of the characters are introduced and we get to know their personalities, but their names aren’t revealed until much later in the story. “Beanpole” is the first film for actresses Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who have made impressive debuts by convincingly portraying the ups, downs and nuances of a friendship that’s deeply affected by love and the emotional wounds of war.

The movie also realistically shows that these female war veterans, who work in a hospital taking care of male war veterans, don’t really have anyone looking after their own emotional needs as veterans. Iya and Masha don’t discuss any of their war stories in the movie, as if they just want to put the war behind them. The bond between combat comrades who’ve gone through a war together is an underlying reason why their friendship is so strong and was able to withstand the tragedy of Pashka’s death.

“Beanpole” had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where Balagov won the award for Best Director in the Un Certain Regard category. The movie then made the rounds at other prestigious festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest), and was chosen as Russia’s official 2019 entry for the Academy Awards category Best International Feature Film. Ultimately, “Beanpole” didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but the movie has revealed promising new talent in Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who will likely have a bright future in Russian cinema.

Kino Lorber will release “Beanpole” in New York City on January 29, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to other cities, beginning February 12, 2020. “Beanpole” was originally released in Russia in 2019.

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